Why So Many University Presidents Burn Out

`WHY are so many of your colleagues leaving the university presidency?" It is a question I have been asked before, but this was a reporter, curious about a recent flurry of high profile resignations. What he did not know was that the question was not, for me, entirely academic. At the very moment of his call, I, too, was considering a departure from the ocean-view "ivory tower" in Malibu I've occupied for the past seven years in favor of a ministry position in the Midwest.

The image of the college presidency is, for most, forever locked in the time warp of one's own campus experience. As I meet our alumni, many smile warmly while reminiscing about one of my predecessors "who always played croquet with the students."

Surely it is this romantic view of the job that recently prompted 38 percent of American adults, responding to a survey on which career they would choose for their children, to select university president over corporate president, United States president, sports or media star. And who wouldn't want a job described last year by the London Times as often paying hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for very little work?

Alas, there is not much croquet on today's presidential calendar. The job has changed dramatically over the past years, even since I assumed a presidency in the mid-80s. With apologies to David Letterman, here are my Top Five Reasons Why Someone Might Choose to Leave a University Presidency:

5. I want to meet my children before they enroll as college freshmen.

In a real way, the university presidency combines the day-to-day operating responsibilities of the prime minister with the ceremonial functions of the king. Without an extraordinary commitment, the family can be a real loser. University presidents often are provided wonderful homes, which they must, in turn, share widely with others. We estimate that we host some 3,000 to 5,000 guests per year in "our" home.

4. I've been told to quit begging for money and get a real job.

One popular definition of a college president is someone who lives in a big house and begs for money. Although trained as academics, presidents of private universities often spend 50 percent or more of their time raising funds. Since most university needs seem to boil down to money, this becomes a never ending cycle of pressure. With the student applicant pool declining, federal and state aid down, and the economy depressed, many colleges are accumulating major deficits. Even a president capable in finan ce often lacks the authority to move without approval by the faculty and other groups.

3. The town has ripped my gown.

How would you like several thousand adolescents dropping into your community each fall? Most towns don't, and the president is the visible representative of the problem. I even stopped going to the grocery store for a while - when I wasn't being lobbied or criticized in the aisles, I had friendly students reminding me that certain foods weren't on my diet.

2. I fell asleep and dreamed I was in a meeting. When I woke up, sure enough I was.

Although much of the work of a university president is stimulating, there is a heavy load of routine functions. I have presided over 53 commencement ceremonies, and I long ago lost count on committee meetings. The social and ceremonial demands of the job can be staggering.

1. To pursue a career in education.

Many leave the presidency to return to teaching and scholarly activity. The tenure of most presidents today ranges between three to seven years. Though recent departures of presidents of well-known universities draw attention to the issue, the high-burnout nature of the job has steadily made it less attractive to top people. With thousands of pages of government regulation to deal with, millions of dollars of funds to raise, and the countless additional challenges of operating a small city, few president s are able to spend much time on "education."

I've now broken the national average and passed my two immediate predecessors in tenure. And I've decided to stay on for a while longer. Why? I could list a hundred reasons for continuing, but the bottom line is this: Where else can one make a stronger contribution to the values of young people and the future of our nation than in higher education? And where else can one be closer to the cutting edge of knowledge in this information age? Besides, as I tell my friends and family back home, if you can't li ve in Kansas, Malibu's not a bad second choice.

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